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Do you speak Whale?

A sperm whale. These mammals are chatty and researchers would like to know what they are talking about and possibly initiate a conversation with them. Image credit: Reinhard Dirscherl via Getty Images

We have come to take Google Translator as a given, it now (June 2021) supports 109 languages translating EVERY DAY 100 billion words! Yet, among all those languages (and I should confess last time I looked at the list there were a handful I dod not know of their existence) you don’t find “whale”. What is it? Well, of course is the language spoken by whales!

It looks like whales, particularly sperm whales, are chatty mammals with a very large brain that ca surely accommodate some space to manage conversations. They speak through clicks and clacks and if you feel they are not as soft like French you have to admit that it works pretty well if you have to speak underwater: try speaking French underwater, or any other of our languages, and you will see, hear actually, that it does not work. On the contrary the clicking sound is perfect underwater since it can carry for hundred of miles! Note: Khoisan languages -a south African family of languages- have click sounds, so also humans have developed this capability.

Scientists have decided they want to understand the whale language and possibly talk to them. Guess what they are using to learn whales’ language: artificial intelligence!

The research project, CETI – Cetacean Translation Initiative-, is gathering a massive amount of data, whales’ talk (watch the clip), is using machine learning and advanced robotics to make sense of whale to whale communications, a string of click-clacks that can be as short as a few seconds and as long as over half an hour. So far the researchers are convinced that whale language has a grammar, a structure, allowing the association of different meanings to sound sequences. THey havee also been able to detect at least six dialects so far…

So far they have gathered a data bank with some 100,000 conversations but they estimate that for breaking the code they may need 4 billions conversations! To gather this immense set of data researchers are placing underwater microphones to eavesdrop whales (looks like they are not ashamed of doing that).

Decoding a spoken language is much more difficult than decoding a written one since one has to understand the boundary of words. This is also what makes this endeavour so interesting and they are expecting that the effort to decipher whales language will accelerate the evolution of certain areas of AI with fall out in several other domains.

And don’t tell me that you have no use for a whale translator: just few days ago a lobsterman was gulped (and spitted) by a humpback whale. That’s a situation when you need to have a little chat with the whale and come to a mutual satisfactory agreement.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.

2 comments

  1. Derrick de Kerckhove

    Wonderful! Getting through to whales will go a long way to getting humans to respect them, and not only them, but all living beings of this planet including mosquitoes!

  2. Robrt Wexelbaum

    I can’t speak Whale. Frequency too low for me. I am checking to see if I have been banned because one of my friends was banned.